David Copperfield | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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David Copperfield | Chapters 38–40 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 38

David Copperfield applies himself to learning shorthand, and finds it very difficult. Tommy Traddles helps by slowly dictating Parliamentary speeches so David can practice. One day at the office, Mr. Spenlow takes David to a coffeehouse where Miss Murdstone is waiting in a private room. She reports she has found out about David's letters to Dora Spenlow. Mr. Spenlow angrily dismisses David's protestations of love as "nonsense." He makes it clear he won't allow an engagement or marriage. He says he only wants to forget the subject, and advises David to forget it as well. David turns to Miss Mills for advice and help, and she agrees to assure Dora of David's "devotion and misery."

The following morning when David goes to the office, he learns that Mr. Spenlow was found dead on the road home the previous evening, having fallen from his horse carriage. It turns out he had no will and was so much in debt, all his property must be sold. Dora, accompanied by her dog Jip and Miss Mills, goes to stay with two aunts in Putney. Miss Mills reports that Dora is in no state to speak of anything except her grief. Miss Mills keeps in touch with David, sharing with him a journal she keeps about her observations of Dora's activities and emotions, which shows her to be as childish as ever, even after her own reversal of fortune.

Chapter 39

David Copperfield goes to Dover to check on Miss Betsey's cottage, and then he walks to Canterbury to visit Agnes Wickfield. Mr. Micawber is now at Uriah Heep's old desk. He tells David he's enjoying his work, and his family is renting Heep's house. David notes an "uneasy change" in Micawber, related to his new position. He finds Agnes Wickfield in her drawing room and tells her about Dora Spenlow's fear and grief. Agnes advises him to write a letter to Dora's aunts, explaining the situation and asking their permission to see Dora. After his initial conversation with Agnes, the remainder of David's visit is constantly monitored by the presence of either Mrs. Heep or Uriah. David escapes for a solitary walk, only to be followed by Uriah, who insists on joining him. Confronted about the constant watch on Agnes, Uriah admits it's because he considers David a rival. When David says he is engaged to someone else, Uriah agrees to call off the watch.

Uriah tells David that both his parents were brought up in charity schools, where they learned that behaving humbly was a path to success; he gloats about how well it's worked for him. After dinner, Heep encourages Mr. Wickfield to overindulge in wine. Emboldened, Heep refers to his intention to marry Agnes, which sends Mr. Wickfield into a fit of anguish and fury. He calls Uriah his "torturer," who has led him to abandon "name and reputation, peace and quiet, house and home." He laments having allowed his grief over his wife's death and his love for Agnes to become obsessive to the point where he used drink as an escape, leading to his ruin. Agnes comes into the room and leads her father away. Later, David urges her to never think of sacrificing herself "to a mistaken sense of duty." The next morning, Heep tells David he has smoothed things over with Wickfield and plans to bide his time regarding Agnes, until the time is right.

Chapter 40

David Copperfield writes to Dora Spenlow's aunts as soon as he returns to London. A week later while walking home, David catches a glimpse of Martha Endell, the young woman who had fled Yarmouth in disgrace. Soon after, he encounters Mr. Peggotty, and they go to an inn to talk. Mr. Peggotty says he has searched for Emily through France, Italy, and to the Swiss mountains where it was reported the couple had been seen. But he got there too late and couldn't pick up their trail, so he'd come back to England. He'd stopped at Yarmouth, and Mrs. Gummidge gave him three letters that had come for him, with money enclosed. In one letter, Emily begs for forgiveness and asks for news of her uncle. The last letter was sent from a town in Germany, and Mr. Peggotty plans to go there at once. David spots Martha listening at the door of the inn, unseen by Mr. Peggotty, but she is gone by the end of the tale. After Mr. Peggotty goes back to his lodging, David tries to find Martha, but the snow has covered her footprints.

Analysis

Charles Dickens used an infatuation from his own youth as inspiration for the character of Dora Spenlow. When Dickens was 18, he fell in love with Maria Beadnell, 20, a banker's daughter. At the time, like David Copperfield, Dickens was working as a court stenographer and reporter. Dickens was obsessed with Maria Beadnell for more than three years. Maria's father thought Dickens was beneath her and sent her to Paris to prevent the courtship from developing. Reportedly, she was flirtatious and capricious and toyed with Dickens. After she returned from Paris, she lost interest in him. He later wrote to a friend that she had inspired him "with a determination to overcome all the difficulties, which fairly lifted [him] up into" his career as a writer. In addition to using Maria Beadnell as a model for Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield, he also used her as a model for Flora Finching in Little Dorrit.

Micawber has always been talkative about everything, so his new reticence regarding Mr. Wickfield and Uriah Heep raises questions about whether he has become corrupted by Uriah Heep. Raising the subject of marrying Agnes is a misstep by Heep. When he drops his facade of humility, he seems prone to overconfidence and misjudgment. He may think he has smoothed things over, but he has put everyone on their guard.

Chapter 40 returns to the plot line about Emily. Mr. Peggotty has gathered a surprising amount of information about Emily's travels, and the reappearance of Martha Endell hints that she may play an important role in finding Emily.

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